WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday pressed the nation’s schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal’s office. Even before the announcement, school districts around the country have been taking action to adjust the policies that disproportionately affect minority students.

Attorney General Eric Holder said problems often stem from well intentioned “zero-tolerance” policies that can inject the criminal justice system into school matters.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said.

But it’s about race, too, the government said in a letter accompanying the new guidelines it issued Wednesday.

“In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” the Justice Department and Education Department said in the letter to school districts. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

The guidelines are not the first administration action regarding tough-on-crime laws or policies of the 1980s and ’90s that have lost support since then. Holder announced last summer that he was instructing federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences, a change affecting crack cocaine sentences that have disproportionately affected minorities.

The federal school discipline recommendations are nonbinding. They encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalating disruptions — and understand they are responsible for routine student discipline instead of security or police officers.

Still, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged the challenge is finding the proper balance to keep schools safe.

The administration said it would try to work out voluntary settlements if school discipline policies are found to violate federal civil rights laws.

That happened in Meridian, Miss., where the Justice Department spearheaded a settlement with the school district to end discriminatory practices. Black students were facing harsher punishment than white students for similar misbehavior.

There have been other changes around the country. The school district in Buffalo, N.Y., adopted a new code of conduct to reduce suspensions after a 15-year-old, Jawaan Daniels, died in a drive-by shooting in 2010 as he left school to begin serving an out-of-school suspension for wandering the halls of school.

In Fairfax County, Va., the school board voted in 2012 to soften punishments for possessing marijuana and implement new policies on parental notification. The changes followed a review prompted in part by suicides of two students who faced discipline.

And in Florida, Broward County Public Schools last November reached an agreement with law enforcement and the NAACP to create an alternative to zero-tolerance discipline policies and shut off what some see as a school-to-prison pipeline.